“It was like a punch, all at once, in my spiritual gut,” writes Dr. Willie Parker of the moment when he realized his life’s mission was to provide abortions to the women who need them. The awakening came as Parker, then on the medical faculty of the University of Hawaii, listened to a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King’s final sermon, a reflection on the story of the Good Samaritan.
In the story, a wounded man lies helpless on the side of the road, bypassed by a priest and a Levite. They refused to stop, Dr. King suggested, out of fear something bad might happen to them. The Samaritan, the hero of the story, reversed that logic: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
“For the Samaritan, the person in need was a fallen traveler. For me, it was a pregnant woman,” the 54-year-old OB-GYN writes in his memoir, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, published April 4. “The earth spun, and with it, this question turned on its head. It became not: is it right for me, as a Christian, to perform abortions? But rather: Is it right for me, as a Christian, to refuse to do them?”
Parker, who was raised Baptist and became born again as a teenager, did not always believe abortions were morally right. As a young man, he proselytized door-to-door, and, when his unmarried younger sister became pregnant, he writes with regret, he refused to speak to her.
Today, he is one of the few abortion providers left in the Deep South, “traveling the country like a twenty-first-century Saint Paul.” His mission: preaching the gospel of choice.
Far beyond personal history, Parker’s memoir is a claim for the moral urgency of reproductive rights, which he constructs with equal parts dispassioned medical precision and a deep understanding of his Christian faith. He faults progressives and humanists for failing to offer a moral, spiritual, ethical, or religious response to “the antis” and Jerry Falwell’s “pro-life” Moral Majority. A successful reproductive rights movement, Parker argues, must not be afraid to claim the moral high ground.
The Progressive spoke with Parker the week of his book launch to learn more about what that might look like. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: In your book, you say the people who fight for abortion rights have never mounted a significant religious or moral counterargument to the pro-life and culture of life narrative, and that pro-choice advocates see themselves as too high-brow or rational to wade into the waters of religion. What would a moral counterargument look like?
Willie Parker: We talk about there being a public morality, but morality is personal. And morality is not just necessarily about religious traditions. We have an unofficial theocracy in this country, meaning that we don’t have a national religion, but we do, and that national religion is largely white anglo-saxon protestant Christianity. A moral argument would say that a religious understanding isn’t necessarily the only way that people arrive at conclusions about how they make personal decisions.
People who are supportive of abortion rights conceded that space to people who are religiously overbearing. Instead of making a case for the morality of women making decisions [about] their bodies, that space has been filled by people who have created false narratives and disinformation. That has led to laws and policies that compromise the dignity and health and wellbeing of women, particularly around reproduction, go unchallenged in the public space. It’s easy to frame something as immoral when you’re not seeing an argument for other ways that that decision could be perceived.
Q: You also fault the left for agreeing in the 1990s and early aughts that abortion is necessarily bad and should be limited. In what ways was that destructive, and is there a way to get back from that?
Parker: When you have a politician like Hillary Clinton who says, “Let’s make abortion safe, legal, and rare,” and frames abortion as a tragic narrative, as if every woman who has an abortion is a victim or that women who have abortions are distraught and unable to think clearly because of trauma in their lives, then we stigmatize and vilify abortion. That means any woman who’s in pursuit of an abortion simply because she chooses not to become a mother, her position is thought to be immoral or irrational.
We’ve undermined the agency of women by creating the notion that their decision-making isn’t valid or rigorous. When a woman pursues her own interests, it’s in competition with what society thinks is in the best interest of society.
When you frame abortion as a tragic narrative, as if every woman who has an abortion is a victim, or that women who have abortions are distraught and unable to think clearly because of trauma in their lives, then we stigmatize and vilify abortion.
Q: What about the narrative that life begins at conception, or of fetal personhood. How do you counter those?
Parker: Part of what’s facilitated this whole notion of claiming fetuses are people is the ability to exploit ultrasound pictures because they look like they have human form [and that] implies that fetuses are small people. If you can create personhood in utero, then you can create a notion of a right to be born. And there’s no right to be born.
It’s the intentional conflation of issues that are morally laden and freighted in order to move people emotionally and short-circuit critical thinking. The issue of birth and the significance of birth and life and reproduction is not purely scientific and it’s not purely moral and philosophical. What it requires is the ability to critically integrate those two. People who are opposed to abortion make every effort to circumvent that connection by exploiting the fact that we can now see the whole developmental process.
Q: You wrote in your memoir that it’s your job as a Christian to help offer a counter-narrative to young women who might be raised to believe their choices are wrong. Have you been able to have conversations with other Christians and other people of faith in which you’ve convinced them of your views on abortion?
Parker: I have a real disdain for proselytizing, having been a fundamentalist Christian and having knocked on people’s doors to try and cold-call them and introduce them to Jesus. I don’t think that’s the best way for anybody to engage anyone about anything. What I try to do is provoke critical thinking around the issue and have that critical thinking be based around a scientific reality of reproduction.
Dr. King said it best when he said, “Science gives mankind knowledge, which is power. But religion gives mankind wisdom which is control.” The two are not enemies. What I’ve tried to do is create opportunities for people to think more deeply and critically about the issues. I’ve found that people who are willing to have a conversation at that level, they do much less talking and they do more listening, because a lot of times they’ve not encountered someone making the attempt to reconcile spirituality and empirical understanding of science in a way that doesn’t denigrate one side or the other, or in a way that doesn’t feel devaluing to them.
Q: Do you have any tips for how to counter the rhetoric of anti-abortion activists?
Parker: My mantra these days, in an era of people creating alternative facts, is that the truth will do. Stick to the truth, and stick to an ethical framework that leaves you committed to deconstructing corrupt systems without necessarily vilifying the people caught up in those systems.
To the degree that you can, set the terms of the conversation so you know what you’re doing. Are you debating based on fact or are you merely sharing philosophical opinion? If you come at me and say life begins at conception, I’ll say are we talking philosophically or religiously? I’ll say I understand you but I don’t agree with you because let’s talk about the reality of how reproduction occurs. You have to have a live sperm and a live egg to have a live zygote, so obviously life has to begin before conception. If you tell me life begins at conception I’ll say that’s a non-scientific conception. Life is a process and not an event.
If you find it’s beyond people to engage at that level, then I think you have to respectfully back out of the argument because otherwise the only option you have is a situation where you’re both talking past each other, and there’s nothing to be gained from that.
My mantra these days, in an era of people creating alternative facts, is that the truth will do. Stick to the truth, and stick to an ethical framework that leaves you committed to deconstructing corrupt systems without necessarily vilifying the people caught up in those systems.
Q: What about for non-religious reproductive rights advocates? What do you hope they take from your book?
Parker: My hope is that I restore or at least create the possibility that they can expect a degree of integrity from Christianity, from a person who claims Christian identity. My hope is that the rigor of my intellectual engagement and the integrity of the expression of my spirituality will lead them to see it’s possible to engage on issues that are controversial in a way that can lead to progress. I hope they don’t conclude that is unique to me, and that they exceptionalize me and still lack any notion that they can have a meaningful, critical dialogue with other people of faith.
Q: You mention in your book a long tradition of Christians who advocate for choice or other social justice issues. Do you feel sometimes that you get trapped in a narrative of exceptionalism as “The Christian Abortion Doctor”?
Parker: It’s easy, in the same way people look at me by race. Because in a racist society where people have a real disdain for black people, when they look at me and decide that I’m not a “typical black person,” rather than that inspiring hope for people not being defined by their skin color, people are much more likely to exceptionalize the positive and extrapolate the negative. My argument is that you don’t know what the conversation will be just because someone claims the identity of Christianity. I don’t want to be exceptionalized as an abortion doctor. When we frame things as a hero or exceptional, it’s our ability to let ourselves off the hook for deciding what to do about an issue we see that requires attention.
Q: So what narratives and big-picture strategies would you like to see more of from reproductive rights advocates?
Parker: I think we need principled leadership in the spirit of Dr. King [or] Reverend [William] Barber in North Carolina with his “Moral Mondays” calling for resistance on the basis of moral authority. I perceive my work as moral and justice work. I’m showing up in the best way that I can.
It’s in the best interest of us all to religiously respect the sovereignty and the agency of women and that’s only going to happen as people of faith speak out and not stand in solidarity by default with oppressive forces in this country.
Stephanie Russell-Kraft is a Brooklyn-based freelance reporter covering the intersections of religion, culture, law and gender. She has written for The New Republic, The Atlantic, Religion & Politics, Religion Dispatches, among others, and is a regular contributing reporter for Bloomberg Law.